UTAH STATE PRISON Clinton Ellis used to cook meth. Now he can create some of the most delicious cuisine you will ever put in your mouth.
"I love it," he said. "You're in here, you're doing time, and for that minute it's gone. You're not here. You're outside. You've got a regular job. You're doing what you're supposed to do."
Ellis was the sous chef in charge of the kitchen as inmates prepared a holiday feast on Saturday night for nearly 100 corrections staffers and volunteers at the prison's Promontory facility. The inmates are part of Salt Lake Community College's culinary arts program working toward an associate's degree and training as a chef.
For the second year in a row, the inmates prepared a Christmas dinner to showcase their skills.
"When you taste it, you're like wow!" Brent Kane said of some of the dishes he's made.
The menu was like something you'd find in a high-end restaurant. Canapes, stuffed figs, a pomelo mint sorbet to cleanse the palate before the entree a Chicken Oscar, Yukon Gold Potato Terrine and snow peas in a garlic butter sauce.
In a corner of the kitchen, Daniel Raynes was putting the finishing touches on dessert: a Gateau St. Honore (a puff pastry made from eclair paste filled with a vanilla custard, dipped in hardened caramel, filled with chocolate and topped with both white and chocolate whipped creams).
"The first time we made one it took us three days," Raynes said. "It's named after St. Honore, the patron saint of pastry chefs."
The program has been a hit since it was first offered to male inmates in the ConQuest program last year. The number of inmates taking classes has increased to 44 this year. They learn about nutrition, business, budgeting and customer service. The inmates must pay tuition and attend classes, in addition to regular schooling and treatment programs offered at the prison.
"We're not just raising bread, we're raising gentlemen," said chef Jackie Pappas, who teaches the class. "They're held to a standard of professionalism."
The program offers the inmates new opportunities once they get out.
"They can instantly get a job. There's always going to be need for cooks," said prison warden Steven Turley, who RSVP'd for dinner.
But the inmates are also acutely aware that in these lean economic times, their classes could wind up on the budget chopping block.
"We, too, have been subject to budget cuts from our already low wages being reduced, commissary prices inflating, and even the food and supplies the state of Utah supplies being cut back," said inmate Jake Barney.
When the menu the students had planned didn't pass budget, they simply revised it still creating culinary masterpieces. Turley said the culinary arts program is one of the best courses they offer, and he'd fight to keep it.
"This is one we would not want to cut," he said. "We just continue to hope that the business owners give these fellas a chance."
Pappas said her students will have to wash a lot of dishes as they move up in the culinary world but also face the stigma of being an ex-con.
"I say to them, 'It's going to be tougher for you than it is for them because you've got this background and so you will have to work twice as hard,"' she said.
"Four minutes!" Ellis shouted in the kitchen as his colleagues frantically moved to get plates onto trays. The pressure's on, but they clearly enjoy it.
"Hot pan! Hot pan!" another inmate shouted as he raced toward the sink.
The entrees were placed on trays, and the inmates lined up in the hall outside the gymnasium, where their guests were sitting. They filed in, remembering the restaurant rules of serving from the left and collecting from the right.
"Delicious," one diner commented.
"Oh wow," another said.
Pappas said she's trying to get local chefs' associations interested in her students' work. Barney is getting ready to be paroled in May moving right into a job at a local steakhouse.
"I've learned so much. It's incredible," he said Saturday. "I have a job waiting for me on the street."
Other inmates are also planning their futures. Raynes hopes to one day open a bistro. Ellis is considering a career in catering. Kane paroles next month after serving a sentence for robbery and graduates from Salt Lake Community College in May. His wife is excited to have him cook, he said.
"It's a life-changing experience," Kane said. "I wasn't really a good cook before."